Are you, or someone you know / love / trust looking for better circumstances? Better job or better clients?
Or maybe, like me, you have a son or daughter entering the workforce and want to give them that extra EDGE.
It was that very circumstance (my son graduated this week!) that prompted this impromptu ‘brain dump’ of all things job-getting related.
As a bit of background, I’ve done literally hundreds of projects, dozens of clients, and countless hundreds of interviews. In our enterprise consulting practice, I work with many of our clients to screen and hire project team members. I know what works, and what doesn’t when it comes nailing the interview.
What follows is a super big-old “brain dump” of 30+ years of business consulting lessons, and a few extra bonus years before I broke into the business-ownership world.
Here we go:
Big Questions to Start With
- The big “why?” questions
- Why look for a job instead of creating your own company?
- Why you in particular? What are you offering a potential employer? Specifically.
- Why interview with that company vs. some other one?
- The big “what?” questions
- What specifically will you do for them, and what will whatever that is do for you, your career, your portfolio, and future opportunities?
- (Notice how the “what you’ll do for them” question comes before the “what they’ll do for you” question…)
- What do you need to know before you show up for an interview?
- What cool things will you learn from the opportunity?
- How will you do the work?
- Mix of both?
- When will you do the work?
- Any time?
- NOTE: If you’re just starting out, I recommend keeping your times as flexible as possible. Sometimes the best opportunities fall outside of straight “9–5” shift work.
- A particular shift?
- Particular days you will work? Days / times you won’t or cannot work?
- Do your research
- What do their clients and customers say about them?
- What do employees (current and former) say about them?
- Believe it or not, just because a few disgruntled (or even completely ‘gruntled’) ex-employees trash on the place, does not mean it is not the right fit for YOU. That “jerk boss” everyone grumbles about on Glassdoor or other forums may just think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread and bottled water—and positively hangs on your every suggestion to make him more money (see later in this list…).
- Tough work environments build strong future consultants. Just sayin’. “If you wish to rise, do the difficult…” (from Ben Hur).
- Then do some more research (Client-side research, and “you-side” research.)
- You’re done researching when you can articulate your target company’s value proposition, market(s) served, key players, biggest wins, and key challenges, and exactly how YOU will help them reduce cost and / or increase revenue.
- Know your market value, within 25% either way.
- Note to you super-brilliant not-yet-college-grads and recent-college-grads: “knowing your worth” does not mean walking in cold and asking for a high 6 or 7-figure salary because of your college GPA, some compliment your professor gave you, or your sheer innate magical awesomeness. Even assuming for the moment that you ARE God’s gift to the business world, you still need burn-in time and proving ground before running up that proverbial ladder.
- How do you know your worth? I did a piece some time ago on the “Consulting Continuum.” (I also cover this in-depth within my course.) But for now, I suggest subscribing to lists in your industry, and industry / HR-related lists offering you a detailed results report if you take their free salary surveys.
- Know your fit for the client or job you’re discussing, and what you bring to the party. High performers, top-line business boosters, and cost reducers command a premium over whatever the HR department may have read on Dice.com or some salary site. If you are planning to ask for a premium price / salary, be sure your value proposition is strong, brilliant, and clear.
- Clean up your social media profiles. If you don’t have a professionally-done headshot (which I recommend you get), at the very least include a nice solo shot of yourself. And for the love of all that is holy—PLEASE don’t just crop yourself out of some group picture, or that intimate snuggling with your sig other picture…you know…where you can still the arm / hand (or other appendages), with the rest of the person cut off. Seriously. Also, no dogs, cats, or animal kissing (unless you’re applying to an animal shelter, charity, or shelter.) Just a nice solid business-like picture will do fine.
- Exception: if you have an action shot of yourself delivering a talk or addressing a professional group, that’s ok too.
- Potential employers or potential clients WILL look you up online (at least most will, and you never know which ones, so be ready). Be sure to have a clean bill of social media health.
- Dress (and groom) to kill.
- Repeat after me–“flip flops are the devil, flip flops are the devil, flip flops are the devil…” (Possible exception for lifeguards or surf instructors…)
- Avoid wearing anything that squeaks, “squashes”, “flaps”, jingles, or jangles (unless auditioning for the Gong Show or musical talent competition.) You’re not a one-person band. Instead, you want employers and their staffers focused on WHO you are, not the noises your accessories make.
- Ladies: smart business pant suits or tasteful business skirt dresses with close-toe shoes.
- Men: suit, tie, brown or black dress shoes. Darker gray, or navy, white shirt, basic tie with solid color or minimal geometric patterns. No visible leg skin (aka: socks high enough.)
- Are you into tattoos, strange piercings, or other forms of bodily…er…”expression”? Good for you–now cover them up. (Unless maybe you’re applying for a position as a tattoo artist, or grunge/alt band audition. Everyone else, cover it / them up.)
- Don’t smell. Get an honest friend / spouse / sig-other / confidant / impartial bystander to smell you (in a non-creepy way) and give thumbs up or down. SERIOUSLY folks.
This is one of the most important and subtle things people miss. (Just read some of the scientific data on human scent attraction / repulsion if you need more science to convince you.)
You don’t want to walk in smelling like “eau d’ everything” (aside from potentially off-putting scents, remember that some people are truly allergic to perfumes and colognes), fish salad from last night’s dinner, the Marlboro Tobacco Man—or some combination of them. Aim for a neutral (as in zero) scent. If you can’t hit zero, then at least be subtle, such as mint.
- Give yourself extra time to arrive. I’m a big fan of the 2x rule: double the time you think it will take to get anywhere.
- Example: If I think it will take me 30 minutes to get there, plan for an hour.
- And if the commute happens to be magical, smooth-sailing, and record setting? Then use your early arrival time to review your research, the questions you’ll be asking, or the money saving / profit-boosting suggestions you’ll be making later in the interview. Stay focused on your interview materials, and not fiddling around with your phone. (Unless you’re double-checking your client / interviewer’s contact information.)
- Bring a tasteful black or brown leather folio with note-taking materials (not your phone!) and at least 3 heavy-bond copies of your executive summary.
- In your client /interview kit: include TWO pens, minimum. Always have an extra pen, as they—like all technology—will fizzle out on you at critical moments.
- Arrive 15 minutes early. The first 5 of those 15 minutes are spent visiting the onsite restroom (if available / possible) to double-check your awesomely groomed appearance from step 8 above. (Which, you should also check studiously BEFORE leaving your car, just in case a restroom is not handy inside the door. That said, checking twice–inside the client site and before leaving your car–in case of wind / rain / etc.)
- Once you’re sure you’re in the right place, TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. Not airplane mode, not vibrate, not ‘do not disturb / night mode’, but off as on O-F-F. As in “device has no power going to it. ” I know, some people do have a medically-diagnosed “app addiction”. If this is you, then fear not. You’ll be turning it back ON the second you leave.)
- Dispose of any gum or mints you may be sloshing around your mouth. ‘Nuff said.
- Be polite and professional to everyone. Every. One. (Just a reminder, that the word “everyone” is binary in this case: if any humanoid form exists on the client property, be nice and professional to it–unless they’re messing with your car…)
From the moment you land on potential client or employer property: landscapers, delivery crew, receptionists (especially them), representatives of any other client companies on the premises (if your interview target is in a multi-tenant facility)—all get the nice and professional treatment. Yep, even the cleaning guy glaring at you in the hallway. Everyone.
- Check in. Some organizations have really formal procedures for this; many even require temporary badges, passes and escorts. Regardless, check-in, sign-in, be clear as to your name, purpose, and who you are there to see.
- Don’t assume the front desk has any notice or advance warning of who you are, or that they are in any way expecting you.
- Don’t assume the front desk has any clue who you are there to see, or even how to contact them. (Trust me on this…You’ll run into front-desk staff—guards, especially—who are astonishingly unaware of who is who at their building, what companies are even there, much less how to contact any of them.) That is *your* job to know.
- While being escorted to the interview room or office, be professional, but not overly chatty. I like to honestly compliment something about the facility, offices, design, and/or property. Especially, take note of what makes the site unique, and /or any special features. Not only is this “safe” discussion ground, but it shows sincere interest, attentiveness, detail, and appreciation without being “schmoozy”, “grovel-y”, or “suck-up-y”.
- Use direct eye contact, friendly smile, and firm handshake. (Yes ladies, this includes you.)
- Bonus note: Some folks like to make a big deal about nerves or “sweaty palms”. Take it from someone who has shaken literally thousands of hands around the globe: no one notices—or cares. EVER. If your handshake is firm, and you’re addressing them at the same time, no one will notice palm moisture. (Ok, maybe if you’re dropping buckets on them—but I have yet to run into that.)
- Then, greet with something like “good morning / afternoon ((interviewer / client first name)), I’m ((your full name)). Pleased to meet you in person.””
- Sit only when invited to, and only where invited to. (Yes, I know it sounds obvious, but when seen as many hundreds of interviews as I have…)
- Before sitting, pretend the chair / couch (though, it might be a bit creepy if they want to interview you on a couch…?) is divided in half. Your amazingly glorious self will be sitting on–and only on–the front-50% of that chair, regardless of how big / comfy / super-ergo it appears. (And yes, even if they do plunk you down in a 5k Herman Miller special, you’ll STILL sit on the front half.)
- It’s ok to accept water / tea / coffee if offered, as long as they are having the same. If not, then politely decline. You don’t want to “drink” alone, as it changes the dynamic. But if you’re both having something, it adds an element of camaraderie or “breaking bread together” vibe to the interview. This can be huge if done well.
- Bring a list of questions. The number depends on the situation, but I generally like a mix of 5 or so. They should be real and thought-provoking. NONE of them should be “how much money are you guys going to give me?…”
- Don’t say anything bad about past experiences, no matter HOW much you may be tempted, or HOW much the interviewer(s) may tempt you to do so. (Any skilled interviewer will try everything at their disposal to find out who you really are, and how you really think.)
- Bring at least TWO (TWO++) direct, and specific strategies that are near-guaranteed to save them money and/or, MAKE them more money. ((DO NOT FORGET THIS STEP.)) I call this the “money step”, and it separates run-of-the-mill candidates from the rock stars. What is it specifically about their company / service / product / industry position that you can help turn into savings and revenue? See the research steps above.
- I could have included this step first—it’s just THAT important. But without everything else before it, you won’t make it this step. Once you do get here, be ready.
- Listen actively / attentively, but don’t volunteer information out of turn. Don’t second-guess what a client or interviewer might “really mean”, or where you think they “might be going” with the conversation. Clarify anything that is ambiguous, and never, ever, ever, ever, ever…assume. The subject of what to “say” or “not say” in business interview situations is a vast topic, but I’ll suggest a few guidelines in the next section.
- It’s OK to not know everything an interviewer or potential asks you. Chances are they’ll throw a curve ball or two. If you really don’t know the answer, put a positive light on it and emphasize how much related experience you have with whatever it is, and how quickly you pick up on new systems / ideas / technologies. Better yet, always bring it back to the financial asset you are. Remember—most interviewers and potential clients are more interested in how you think or approach a challenge, rather than an exact answer. And if you’re concerned about being a touch “skills-short” for the opportunity you’re discussing:
- I like the “60%” rule when responding to opportunities. It works like this: If I have full confidence that I have at least 60% of what they want right now, I’ll go for it. Keep in mind that companies over the past 20+ years follow the “pie-in-the-sky” hiring model: ask for every known degree, ability, skill, and acronym they can think of, and expect you to have decades of experience with each. Companies KNOW they won’t really find everything. But they also know the more they ask for, the more they’re likely to get.
- How to wrap up—Inquire about their process and next steps. Let’s face it, chances are good intuitively or explicitly know if you’re getting the job or not before you leave. Not always, but a lot of the time.
- Get a list of their next steps.
- Send a handwritten thank-you note. Send a thank-you email. When you do, include something specific and relevant to their business; an article, a study, PDF report, anything extra special. Be memorable—deliver even more value.
- Follow up. How much and how often? Well, as the old marketing adage goes: follow-up until you get the job / book the client, OR until they tell you to never call them again. Persistence pays. That one extra call or email could (and often IS) make all the difference between you and “candidate ‘B'”.
There are much more aggressive “hire me now” strategies one could follow, but I’ll cover those another time. Following the 27-point list above will put you (or your firm) way out in front of job searches and sales calls.
Topics to Avoid
Your interview / meeting is going well. You’re hitting it off, and may starting to feel comfortable with just “flowing conversation”. Excellent! Now is an excellent time to steer clear of a few things:
- Weather / traffic. Boring, trite, unimportant, small-talk-ish, and a general waste of valuable and limited-time interview energy.
- Family stuff / status. Unless you’re maybe hosting a daycare in your home, or applying for some type of in-house nanny / care gig, leave all the family / lack-of-family / family ‘status’ discussions back in your car.
- Religion / politics / elections. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone has another body part as well. Ditch the first, so you don’t sound like the latter.
- Bad stuff about anything. Especially former employers and coworkers. Don’t go crazy with the opposite approach either. Consider avoiding “it’s all good”, or “it’s awesome / amazing / excellent” approach. You’re not in “Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure”—you’re in an interview.
- Anything related to how you “feel”, how much (or little) sleep you got, how much effort / hassle / traffic trauma it was getting to the client site, etc.
- Stuff you dislike in general. Stuff you like–if it can be made cogently relevant to the interview and interviewer’s company, can be safe if done well.
- If you’re a super-smart player, you can turn dislikes of things in business / technology, to suggested “even better” improvements—as long as it’s doable for the client, and backed by your research.
- Benefits Packages. My suggestion is to never directly ask about any company benefits at all. IF they make a huge deal about their “packages”, then it’s ok to acknowledge how great they sound. Otherwise, forget it. Better to focus on things like who you’ll be working with, how that particular group / team likes to work (work style / team culture), what systems and styles work well with them, etc. Remember that many companies today talk up their benefits packages to gloss over the fact they don’t pay well. Cash first, benefits later. (Separate toipc…)
- Anything “victim-ish”. You had a tough upbringing, or fancy yourself the wrong color / family-status / place-and-time in life ‘got all the bad breaks’ / wrong neighborhood / yadda, yadda. Keep victim-hood baggage to yourself. Everyone has something. The fact that you have an opportunity in front of you NOW is all that matters. Make the most of it. And if it doesn’t work out, create MORE opportunities. Ditch the whining and victim-hood if it applies to you. No one cares, and the business world owes no one anything.
- Semi-exception: It IS ok though to talk about working through business challenges, or taking on 5 jobs while working your way through college. That shows character and initiative, not victim-hood.
Let’s cap it off with a few suggestions related “to” interviewing, or getting hired in general. These strategies have served me well for decades:
Always take the interview.
If there’s one rule I always lived by, whether shopping new clients, contracts, or just j-o-b-s, it was “always take the interview.”
Even when I was unsure the job was a fit, or I was fairly sure it wasn’t a fit. I’d do it anyway.
- You just don’t always know how things will work out, and the experience may just surprise you.
I remember meeting with a small alternative energy company many years ago. The interview wasn’t something I would normally take; they were interested in a mix of identity / security work, and some marketing automation. But they were super-persistent about having a chat, so we met.
We ended up talking alternative energy markets, deregulation, energy auctions, and a bunch of other topics I learned about. Ultimately, the opportunity wasn’t a fit for them or for me, but what a great experience! I learned a ton, and honed my business skills even further. They eventually referred me on to a local food production company client, and I gave them some suggestions to reduce hiring costs by 30%. Win win.
- You hone your interview and presentation skills.
I don’t believe in the saying “clients or jobs are a ‘numbers’ game.”” Interview opportunities bring practice, and the more the better. But clients or employers? If you’ve done your homework and are super smart and targeted with your value proposition(s), the only ‘numbers game’ you’ll be playing is deciding which salary numbers work best for you. If you find yourself playing the numbers game, then I submit it’s time to revisit your targeting and research activities.
Today’s interviewer is tomorrow’s potential client contact.
- You see from the inside how things work, what makes companies tick. This experience is invaluable for other areas in life, especially business and technical consulting!
Forget whatever the interviewer or his/her staffer may have told you about “not dressing up” for the interview. Always look sharp, always dress as nicely as you possibly can.
See above for more details on “dressing and grooming to kill.”
That old saying about “success is showing up” is valid as ever.
Always be on time, always show up. I don’t care how crappy you feel, how bad things were today, what your car / children / spouse did / sig other did not do… Just get there.
A little story…
Many years ago now, on one of my last “j-o-b” type gigs, I was scheduled to meet with a contract hiring manager up in Los Angeles (I was living in Orange County, CA at the time.)
I had the flu. BAD. I could barely talk. My eyes were a watery puffy mess. I could barely focus on anything, or hold down any food for more than a few minutes. I was sweating. A total train-wreck. To this day, I’m still not sure how I ever even drove to the appointment. (But they later assured me I’d made it…)
Literally—I kid you not—I remember next to nothing of the interview itself, other than thinking how badly it was going to go…Sitting in haze and fog would be putting it mildly, and the only two things I was sure of:
- I felt like death (barely) warmed over. And…
- There was no way in hell I was going to get the gig.
They were calling my home office number before I even got back on the freeway!
That little project (in a highly volatile environment, I might add…) ended up being a lucrative little six-figure gig, boundless learning opportunity; some technologies I still use (and market on our enterprise side) to this day. It was all upside.
But what had I almost done in my “feeling-like-near-death” condition? I almost called to make my excuse, curl up in a corner, and just hope I didn’t die. I wasn’t really sure I could even make it to Los Angeles without throwing up all over the car (if you’re not familiar with with the Irvine, California to mid-town Los Angeles commute….check it out online. Easily aa good 2+ hours bumper-to-bumper—on a good day—each way.)
That’s just one of dozens of examples from my career. The point is, show up, show up, SHOW UP.
Shop opportunities vs. benefits.
I’ve been an outspoken advocate against public, or business-paid “benefits” for years. Agree with me or disagree, one thing is for sure: for many companies, “benefits” or the phrase “generous compensation packages” is just code for financial, golden handcuffs, and unsatisfying career. Give me opportunities to learn and take on those impossible, or “politically risky projects” any day. Bigger cash and bigger opportunity is significantly more important than “benefits.”
Keep in mind: “benefits” change. Companies constantly change plans, providers, or dump whole categories of benefits.
Taking—and making good on—big opportunities (with actual money compensation) will enrich, grow, and ultimately boost your earning power. Plus, the experience will give you huge talking points and case studies if you decide one day to break out on your own as a consultant or coach.
Don’t be afraid of volatile environments, or ‘risky companies’.
Companies that are downsizing, upsizing, “right sizing”, acquiring, getting acquired, laying off, backfilling with contractors, making bold technology or staffing moves, in the middle of a strike, etc.—these are the interesting places!
Sure, you may only be there for a short time—you may even overstep your bounds in particularly hostile environments, but you will toughen up, grow, and learn powerful lessons. BIG lessons those overly safe / stodgy / ‘old economy’ or other companies can never teach you. Plus, you have the opportunity to play a role in turning around a tough situation. And companies LOVE to hire bona fide turnaround artists.
Conversely, “old school”, “old economy”, “boring”, companies can have enormous opportunity.
There’s something that the biggest, oldest, government and highly regulated companies can give you:
*The patience and perseverance to present your ideas to committee, after committee…after committee…, sell ideas to people who don’t want to be sold, overcome every imaginable (and many unimaginable) objection, and get your ideas implemented.
IF you can succeed in such an environment, you’ll do well in the freelance client market.
Tread carefully in “kangaroo court” interviews.
“Kangaroo court” in the interview context, is the ad hoc “committee-style” interview.
People come in and out, ask whatever they want, sometimes even all at the same time, maybe sitting around a big table, and fire stuff at you.
Some of the biggest companies you can think of employ this practice. It’s not just one interviewer—or even 10. It may be waves of people, in and out of different settings and situations.
Your research (and more research again…) should prepare you for this. Here is wisdom: the bigger the opportunity, the more people you’ll have to talk to. And sometimes, you’ll be talking to a few dozen of them all at once.
Three suggestions for thriving in “kangaroo court”:
- Write down all the names of the “interviewers” as soon you get them. Get roles and titles, or at least “where” they fit in the organization.
- Address one question and interviewer at a time—even if 3 people ask you something at once. It’s ok to say “great questions; let me answer each one at a time to make sure I get everything covered.” Smile, answer evenly, hands in front of you always. Take notes.
- Try to pick out the power players in the group and give them the most attention.
Kangaroo court interviews can be brutal. But, handle them well and you’ll start your first day with a very high degree of respect, confidence, and trust from the team. This type of interview style builds excellent character and interview “muscle memory” for bigger and better opportunities.
There can be gold in the “oldies”…
As in old(er) technologies. The first half of my career (and even to this day), was built on a mix of knowing really old AND really new technologies. Despite what the tech mags tell us, a LOT of the world’s companies and governments are NOT running on the latest technologies.
So, putting all the tech mags, drones, AI, bots, bio-computing, sensors, IoT, cloud this-that-and-the-other-thing aside for just a minute…
Remember that technology cycles move MUCH slower for most businesses than for individuals. Sometimes by as much as 5–15 years different.
Chances are excellent the hardware and software you run at home is several years newer than what many businesses may be running. And understanding some “old tech”, older tools, operating systems, ancient versions of Microsoft Office, old networking technologies and the list goes on CAN actually serve you quite well.
Some of our most lucrative business opportunities came about because of the OLD stuff I knew about.
Now get out there and make it happen! I’m rooting for you!
To your massive success,
\ – Corbin